By Sharlene Gandhi
We need to talk about Snapchat. We need to talk about this little white ghost floating on a yellow wall that is the embodiment of absolutely everything that is wrong with social media. We need to talk about this app that is raking in millions for a pair of Stanford fraternity bros, quite possibly at the expense of a lot of the population. We need to talk about seeing ten seconds of somebody’s joy and believing that that is their entire life.
Snapchat was founded on a very basic principle: send photos or videos up to 10 seconds long to your friends and family, after which the self-deleting function ensures that the image will never be seen again. Unless, of course, your friend / foe was smart enough to take a screenshot within those few seconds.
Then came Snapchat Stories, a handy mini reality TV show of what had gone on in somebody else’s life for the past 24 hours. These were usually filled to the brim with pictures and short videos of the Snapchatter going out, being with other people, having fun, and my personal favourite, the dire need to show their audience whenever they were in a nightclub.
As Wikipedia puts it, the short-term nature of content creation and dissemination on Snapchat ‘encourage[s] frivolity’, adding an element of risk to what you choose to share. Knowing that, for the most part, the content will ‘disappear’ after 10 seconds or 24 hours, has led to users sharing increasingly obscure aspects of their lives that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable. But the ‘uniqueness’ of the content continued to attract bigger audiences, and it was then that Snapchat founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy realised that they could capitalise on this.
Today, Snapchat is a completely different app; its clever use of geofilters and facial recognition have paved the way for the infamous filters, whilst its active userbase of around 100 million (as of 2016) has caught the eyes of big media companies such as ESPN, Time Warner and Vice. The Discover feature allows these companies to reach the Snapchat audience much in the same way that an average user would create a Snapchat story. Many of these companies have a dedicated Snapchat Content Executive, or equivalent. The catch, however, is that Snapchat charges these companies $100 per thousand views. Whilst that may sound like a lot, the average user spends around 30 minutes on Snapchat per day, which is the equivalent of watching 180 10-second video clips. Multiply that by the 100 million user base and hey, you have a 27-year-old founder who is worth $4 billion and is engaged to Orlando Bloom’s ex-wife.
I first realised that Snapchat was not my cup of tea when studying abroad in Boston last year. A study abroad experience is overwhelmingly filled with positive moments, including endless meals out, nights out, weekends away and the like. My Snapchat stories were enviable, to say the least. I was even told that when I came home: ‘You look like you’re having SUCH a good time!’. ‘Look like’ are the two key words here. Yes, granted, I was having a fabulous time, but by no means was everything rosy 24/7. It was then that I realised that, subconsciously or not, I used to curate the content I put on my Snapchat stories according to what other people would think was worth watching. I very distinctly remember recording clips of things that I thought were great or hilarious or totally worth watching multiple times; but after watching them over a few times, I’d delete them for fear that nobody else would find it as entertaining. ‘Validation’ is the word my girl Jess Howes uses, and I cannot think of a better one; it is almost like being back at high school and trying to get in with the cool crowd, except the cool crowd is now everybody but you. That would explain why nobody thought I was studying during my year abroad… because who wants to watch someone studying? As my pal Jonnie Bevan neatly summarised, ‘people only post on [Stories] if it is lit.’
I can’t remember when exactly I deleted Snapchat for good, but I can remember when I first thanked myself for it. There was a huge dance festival taking place in the football stadium at Boston College; it had been hyped as the event of the year, literally for the whole time I was there. As a former / wannabe dancer myself, I was unbelievably excited for this show that I wasn’t even going to be performing in. I remember, at one point, watching the Irish dancers and just being stunned. I also distinctly remember reaching for my phone to record them for a Snap story, realising simultaneously that a) I’d have to take my eyes off of them for two seconds if I did that, and b) ten seconds on Snapchat couldn’t do them justice. My phone stayed in my pocket for the next three hours, I lost my voice cheering for my friends and for the first time in so long, felt a buzz and sense of relief at having seen it all with my own two eyes rather than through a screen. Funnily enough, Mei Fan-Cui, who I was with at the time, also cites ‘liv[ing] in the moment’ as her reason for deleting Snapchat.
Now think about the context in which you, or I, or anybody, would sit down and take some time to catch up on their Snapchat stories. It is unlikely you’d be out with your friends, in the middle of a restaurant, mid-exhilarating conversation, when you’d think to whip out your phone and check what everybody else is up to. A more accurate picture is probably when you are alone, probably a little bored, and with little else to entertain you. As you watch others doing slightly more exciting things, it is possible that you yourself feel as though you should be doing those things as well. You start to question whether your life is as exciting as theirs, when in fact there is no issue at all; your excitement just takes place in a different time and place. You need to allow yourself time off from excitement. But it is remarkably easy to get sucked into watching story after story, just like it is remarkably easy to get sucked into Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Sophie Bament notes that the video content on Snapchat adds another layer to the problem: ‘recordings make you feel much more involved, or “there”… and recordings obviously show more of a person’s life / an event than a photo does’. It’s literally like being hooked to a TV show.
Snapchat is a neat amalgamation of everything that is potentially wrong with social media: the faux-happiness, the voyeuristic gaze, the need to compare your own experiences alongside other people’s. You could argue that all social media platforms are like that, and undoubtedly they are, but there is something about the immediacy and the ‘frivolity’ of posting things on Snapchat that makes it distinctly different from the rest. I have tried, after multiple demands from my friends, to redownload Snapchat, but each time have found it to be unfulfilling and a needless guzzler of data, time and memory on my phone. I’ve been told I’ve got self-esteem issues when I explain why I deleted Snapchat. I’ve also, on the other hand, been told I’m missing out on loads because I’ve deleted Snapchat. At the end of the day, I, and many others, took emotionally intelligent decisions to remove ourselves from something we found toxic both for ourselves and our ‘audiences’, and we are better off for it.
It is apt that the Snapchat logo is a ghost because your soul ‘dies’ after watching Snapchat stories for hours. And just as your soul slowly dies watching Snapchat, Snapchat will die, too. Whilst it won’t die anytime soon, Facebook and Instagram are hot on its heels in implementing the Stories feature. Both have the potential to replenish your soul as well, not to mention far superior from a user-base perspective. In short, we may not need to talk about Snapchat as much as I thought.